Egypt: History - Pharaonic Dynasty IIV (Third Dynasty)

Third Dynasty

The Third Dynasty, which with the next three dynasties constitutes the Old Kingdom, is characterized by the grand line of pyramids running along the western desert from near the level of modern Cairo. The second king of Dynasty III was the monarch whom later generations knew by the name of Djoser, and whose importance as the founder of a new epoch, even though it was his brother Nebka who founded the dynasty, is marked in the Turin Canon by the exceptional use of red ink. Djoser's outstanding achievement was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara overlooking the great city of Memphis. This is a massive structure rising in six unequal stages to a height of 204 feet. Egypt has no more remarkable spectacle to offer than the comparatively recently excavated and restored complex of buildings of which that earliest of the pyramids forms the center. The credit for this is, however, probably due less to Djoser himself than to his famous architect Imhotep (Gk. Imouthes), whose later reputation as a writer and healer ultimately led to his deification and identification with the Greek demigod Asclepios. It is not without reason that Manetho ascribes to Imhotep the invention of building in stone, since Djoser's great funerary monument was in fact the first to be constructed wholly in that material. The royal tombs of the previous dynasties had been mastabas of brick, with little employment of granite and limestone except for flooring and the like. The Step Pyramid too was originally conceived of as a mastaba, though square and not oblong, but later obtained its present unique appearance by successive changes of plan. Investigation of the maze of underground galleries revealed a few walls lined with blue faience tiles to imitate matting, and elsewhere thousands of splendidly shaped vases and dishes of alabaster, breccia, schist, and other fine stones were found thrown about. Some low reliefs depict the king in ceremonial poses, and their exquisite delicacy shows that the sculptors of the time had mastered this technique no less well than that of the noble seated statue of Djoser that was also among the finds. The vast area outside brought to light edifices of the most unexpected types. Apart from the temple chambers on the north side which were needed for the daily service of offerings and other ceremonial, as well as a row of shrines apparently for the celebration of the Sed-festival or royal Jubilee, various imposing structures were uncovered of which the purpose in unknown or only guessed. These everywhere employed small blocks of limestone contrasting markedly with the cyclopean masonry favored by the next dynasty. Evidently the brick buildings of the foregoing age still largely influenced the architect's mind, the possibilities of stonework being as yet only dimly perceived. Particularly strange are the half-open stone doors copied from earlier ones of wood, and here for the first time are seen fluted or ribbed columns, some of them with pendent leaves apparently copied from a now extinct plant. These columns are, however, still engaged in the adjacent walls as if lacking confidence in their own strength as supports. The entire site is enclosed within a magnificent paneled and bastioned wall of the finest limestone no less than a third of a mile long from north to south and about half that length from east to west.

Passing over a mysterious building at the south-west corner of the enclosure the substructure of which looks for all the world like a second tomb of Djoser himself (the pyramid of Unas or Unis, with the Persian shaft tombs along side), only on a smaller scale, we now turn to the sepulchers of the other kings of Dynasty III. Much excitement has been caused by Zakaria Goniem's discovery around 1950 of a second very similar pyramid a little farther to the south-west. Here again there is a huge enclosure flanked by a stately wall of limestone displaying much the same features, but constructed with an eye to economy that proclaims it a copy of slightly later date. The same conclusion is suggested not only by the choice of a somewhat less advantageous site and the use of larger masonry, but also by the fact that unlike the Step Pyramid, the result of many hesitations and changes, Goneim's pyramid was obviously designed as such from the start. The excavation is still incomplete, and it remains to be seen whether after the disappointment of an empty sarcophagus any substantial part of a royal equipment will ultimately emerge. There are at least clear indications that the monument was not abandoned unused, and the sealing on some clay stoppers revealed the king who had been the owner to have borne the name 'the Horus Sekhemkhet', Djoser's successor who's personal name was Djoser Teti. This has been shown by Hayes to the name to be read on a relief in the Wady Maghara (Sinai) which had previously been attributed to Semempses of Dynasty I. It is a strong corroboration of his view that the relief in question is now seen to have been one of a group of records of expeditions in quest of turquoise all belonging to Dynasty III. Not only was Djoser represented in this group, but also a Pharaoh named Zanakht closely associated with Djoser at Bet Khallaf in Upper Egypt, where the two kings appear to have possessed large brick mastabas (cenotaphs?) side by side. The pyramid of Zahakht, if ever he had one, is unknown, and Lauer has suggested that he died young and that the mastaba out of which the Step Pyramid grew was originally meant for him. Yet another pyramid of what we are now entitled to call of Dynasty III type was discovered by Barsanti in 1900 at Zawiyet el-'Aryan a few miles south of Giza, and is known as the Layer Pyramid. This monument, so badly ruined that its nature had been seriously called in question, is attributed to an otherwise almost unknown Pharaoh, whose name Khaba was found on stone vessels in the vicinity. The last and the latest of the pyramids that can be placed in the same category is situated many miles south of Saqqara at Maidum, not far from the entrance to the Fayoum. Stripped as this now is of all its outer coating, it presents the appearance of a huge tower with sloping sides and two high steps near the top. Graffiti in the small and simple temple at its base shows that in Dynasty XVIII it was believed to belong to Snofru, the first king of Dynasty IV, but it is believed that it was begun by the last king of the Third Dynasty who's personal name was Huni.

If Dynasty III can be taken as beginning with Zanakht, it will have comprised only six rulers covering a span of about seventy-five years. The nineteen years allotted to Djoser seem an absurdly short time for the completion of so stupendous a monument as his. The twenty-nine years given by Manetho might be accepted the more readily were it not that his Dynasty III counts nine kings, all of them except Tosorthros (Djoser) with unidentifiable names and having 214 years as the total of their reigns. The Abydos and Saqqara king-lists support the Turin Canon's figure of four rulers, but there are disturbing discrepancies in the names that they give. In particular, there is a doubt about the position of Nebkare', whom the Saqqara list places after Djoser's similarly named successor Djoser-teti, while the Abydos list substitutes the otherwise unknown Sedjes and Neferkare'. The Turin Canon and the Saqqara list agree in making Huni the immediate predecessor of Snofru, and this is confirmed by a well-known literary text. A fact that may at first perplex the student is the absence from the king-lists of the Sekhemkhe, Khaba, and Zanakht mentioned above as the names of Dynasty III kings. The reason is that in their time preference was still given to the ancient habit of referring to kings by their Horus-names instead of by the Nome, which occupied a less prominent position until the reign of Snofru, and which was thenceforward enclosed in a cartouche. It is thus more than probable that the identity of the three kings is in question is concealed in the cartouches of the king-lists. This is known to be the case with Djoser, who in the Step Pyramid and at Bet Khallaf is always described as 'the Horus Netjrikhe'. The name Djoser is first recorded on an only slightly later ivory plaque where it appears as the king's nebty-name, but definite proof of the identity of Netjrikhe with the Djoser of the hieroglyphs and the Tosorthros of Manetho is found no earlier than in a long rock-inscription of Ptolemaic date on the island of Sehel in the First Cataract. This inscription relates that King Netjrikhe Djoser, being in deep sorrow because of a seven-year famine that had afflicted the land, sought counsel from the wise Imhotep. Through him he learned that the Nile inundation was under the control of the ram-headed god Khnum of Elephantine (ancient Abu), whom Djoser consequently appeased by the gift of the large tract of Lower Nubian country known in Greek times as the Dodekaschoenos. The degree of historicity to be attributed to the contents of this late effusion has been much debated, but it seems improbable that this extensive stretch of land was at the disposal of the Pharaoh at so early a date.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011